Monday, February 1, 2010

Duncan Johnson @ Spheris Gallery -- Hanover, NH

Last week I was in Hanover, NH and happened into Spheris Gallery, the New England annex of Cynthia Reeves' Chelsea gallery, where I was surprised to find a show of wood "paintings" by Vermont artist Duncan Johnson. I hadn't been aware of his work so was happy to both discover it and find that he is a well established artist working in wood.

His work is an interesting blend of chance and intention -- raw, rough, weathered, found wood scraps that are meticulously cut, arranged, and assembled. The result is mysterious and thought provoking as the viewer alternates between thinking of the possible stories that preceded each piece finding its way into the work, and the fine craftsmanship that went into the final composition.

Bear Claw
47" x 58"
I like the bright color theme in Bear Claw both aesthetically and conceptually. I feel the brighter the color the more intense the questions about their origins -- Who owned them? What were they used for? Why were they painted with intense colors? How did Duncan come upon the piece?

This one below, Longitude (2009), is the largest of the show. Each piece of wood has been reduced to about 3/16" thick and attached to a light grid frame. I was told this piece weighs under 50 lbs. Quite an accomplishment.

Longitude (2009)
84" x 60"

Longitude (2008)
72" x 48"

With this close-up of Longitude (2008) you can see an important aspect of the work. Duncan ties the pieces together, both physically and visually, with two different types of nails that are placed along his horizontal and diagonal graphite lines. Mistakes aren't an option. Draw the wrong line and you aren't going to be able to remove it without disturbing the surface. Miss the nail and you'll leave a distracting dent. I'm not sure how he does it; a very stressful undertaking that I'm sure I would have problems with on both counts.
Longitude (close-up)
32" x 36"

24" x 27"
Stoke Hold
24" x 27"

His titles also add a level of mystery to the work. They probably have personal meaning for Duncan but, importantly, they don't take away from the art. It isn't easy naming abstract geometric work without being too detached or prescriptive. These seem to be a good balance.

Notably, Duncan is a 2009 American Academy of Arts and Letters award winner. A huge accomplishment and honor. It is nice to see the established arts community recognizing his unique vision and aesthetics.


  1. glad you took some close ups, it is much more interesting up close seeing all the nuances. cool stuff, thanks for turning me on to this art!

  2. We love Duncan's work. We're featuring him in our Winter 2010 printed publication, available mid-November 2010.